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Digital Technologies and Learning

Cédric Fluckiger et Vinciane Zabban
Cet article est une traduction de :
Technologies numériques et apprentissages [fr]

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  • 1 We would like to thank the contributors to this thematic issue, either for their text proposals or (...)

1Digital technologies are inherently information and communication technologies. For this reason, they are often referred to as ideal resources for learning1. For a long time, science and technology studies have identified the way in which internet and digital tools facilitate the creation and sharing of knowledge, both within socially homogeneous groups of specialists and at the interface of heterogeneous social worlds (Dagiral & Peerbaye, 2016; Heaton & Millerand, 2013; Méadel, 2010). A variety of research studies have also emphasized the investment of digital technologies as tools for learning, be it by a young population for the acquisition of knowledge that is described as “buissonnière” i.e. made in a non-scholar context (Barrère, 2011) or by older populations for access to amateur practices (Flichy, 2017) which is sometimes perceived as a way of compensating for an otherwise difficult school path (Pasquier, 2018). Digital technologies regularly appear, in this sense, both as promising answers to learning difficulties (pedagogical innovation, personalization and autonomy, etc.), and conversely as objects of anxiety regarding the evolution of our relationship to learning (deterioration of the relationship to other practices such as reading, rivalry with artificial intelligence, etc.). Critical studies conducted in the education field allow us to nuance and counterbalance the various “myths” that accompany the association of digital technology with learning-related issues (Amadieu & Tricot, 2017).

2One of the most frequently overlooked points in both optimistic and pessimistic discourses on the pedagogical potential of digital technologies is that their use is itself about entering into a learning process. Behind the multiplicity of devices and of ways in which they can be used, all digital technologies share the common feature of renewing the mediation of our relationship to the world. They set the latter into a new social and technical environment that must be learned and apprehended, and this, to paraphrase Sylvie Octobre, by the thumbs as well as the neurons (Octobre, 2014). To introduce this thematic issue, we first point to the ubiquity of learning when it comes to digital technologies, both in theory and in practice, and this, regardless of the social scenes considered. This panorama echoes the diversity and originality of the approaches outlined in the articles of this issue, since despite this omnipresence, this question has rarely been a central focus of research on the uses of digital technologies. The rest of the introduction covers autonomy as a recurring theme in the texts that make up the dossier. They provide original contributions to the discussion of this notion by pointing out, from different angles, the links between autonomy and learning through the prism of issues that the mediation of digital technologies reinforces at different levels. They make it possible to identify two major questions related to these issues, which we unpack in the second and third parts of this introduction. The first question is whether these technologies are likely to make individuals less dependent on their social determinants and social relations (based on gender, class, or age for instance) in their learning paths. The second question is to what extent they contribute to the transformation of our understanding of learning, leading or not to greater autonomy and independence from the traditional frameworks of knowledge and know-how transmission. The analyses in the eighth texts contained in the issue, all of them founded on a solid empirical basis, raise and detail the complexity of these questions and the challenges to which they relate.

1. Digital technologies and the ubiquity of learning

3As early as the 1980s, studies showed that digital learning was not limited to its cognitive dimension. Admittedly, the use of everyday digital devices does not require as much learning as what David Sudnow (1983) observed about expert electronic game player’s skills in the 1980s. However, as a 2001 French AOL advertising campaign pointed out, it is at the very least necessary to know how to “click” in order to navigate on the internet. The uses of digital technology are practical activities, and as such they involve a considerable practical dimension (Lelong, 2002: 273): one essentially learns by doing and practicing. This seems to be especially true regarding “new” technologies that initially spread, especially within companies, among workers who already worked, constituting what François Bonvin and Jean-Pierre Faguer refer to, in an analysis grounded on a survey conducted in 1993, as “an autodidact generation.” Those scholars demonstrate the uneven capacity of the individuals interviewed to invest in the learning of these tools, a capacity that remains dependent on their dispositions to learn as well as on their availability, and even more so on their ability to “make it known”, i.e., to capitalize on the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Michel Gollac and Francis Kramarz also point to the fact that the use of computer tools in a professional context (which is rarely, if ever, the subject of dedicated training) is largely determined by the social characteristics of the users, given that computers “are never user-friendly except for those who share the culture of their designers” (Bonvin & Faguer, 2000; Gollac & Kramarz, 2000).

4The design of the most widespread equipment follows a long-term trend to hide the technical aspects of digital tools. Graphical interfaces and the closed environment of mobile apps make users feel that they are acting directly on tangible objects and lose the sense of the instruction-process-result chain that was evident when these uses were made through command line interfaces. To build on the reflexion of Claude Pair (1996), we may say that the evolution of computer science itself has undermined the motivation to understand and learn its technical nature. Nevertheless, any use of a digital device also gives rise to some kind of representation of its technical functioning. Grugier (2016) shows, for example, that nursery school pupils confronted with screens in the classroom (tablet, digital school board) not only develop a form of “practical familiarity” but also formulate questions and conceptions about the functioning of technical objects. Other works have shown the joint evolution of manipulation and conceptualization activity with digital objects in elementary school students, both on computers (Gianoula & Baron, 2012), programmable robots (Spach, 2017) and humanoid robots (Bugmann & Karsenti, 2018).

5The dual dimension, both physical and conceptual, of digital learning, has also been observed for students using everyday tools in an educational situation (Fluckiger, 2016), but also for teacher-researchers using e-mail (Millerand, 1998), etc. Learning often also means breaking with habits: forgetting one’s instinctive attitudes towards certain interfaces in order to learn how to manipulate new ones (for example, switching from an Apple operating system to a Microsoft system), or withdrawing from certain body techniques in order to develop others (Sudnow, 1983). The question of learning processes may thus be related to the issue of innovation, for instance when considering the phenomenon of path dependency described by innovation studies, which highlight the process of the establishment of norms and standards in relation to professional uses. Preexistent structures of learning is, for example, an important feature in the development of standardized keyboards (David, 1998), or in the design of user manuals (Akrich & Boullier, 1996).

6Acculturation to digital tools is nowadays an obligatory step in a wide range of practice areas, whether they are part of free time (leisure) or constrained time (school, work, various tasks). Whether this learning accompanies an initial socialization to the practice or contributes to its evolution, it takes place at all ages of life. Children are obviously actors of such learning. There may be a tension between the expectations regarding digital cultures carried by the school and those shared between peers or transmitted within families (Fluckiger, 2008). Pupils entering school are faced with “school-based” devices that are part of a pedagogic program run by a teacher (tablets, digital boards, learning software, etc.). These instruments are studied by a vast literature in education sciences (see Baron & Depover, 2019 & Fluckiger, 2020 for a panorama) or psychology (Amadieu & Tricot, 2014). Moreover, the introduction to cultural consumption in the early adolescence (Octobre et al., 2010), is now accompanied by new supports and individualized communication devices. Individual access to a cell phone at the start of middle school is a good example. Universities confront students with new needs and uses (use of university platforms, e-mail), while first professional experiences come with new tools, or the renewed use of already familiar tools.

7These learning at all ages of life concern various social scenes. Moving in together and perhaps even more so parenthood may once again require a readjustment of media practices, and change in the mobilization of digital tools. In the intimate domain, the acquisition of “tiny knowledge” (Pasquier, 1999, 2002) related to biographical transitions and whose transmission is rarely formalized, such as learning about feelings or sexuality, find support in media practices that expose individuals less directly to the judgment of their entourage.

8Other areas of private life such as leisure, artistic, playful, creative practices, or even health, give rise to occasions of learning that involves digital technologies, as shown by research on “quantified-self” practices (Dagiral et al., 2019). External constraints, such as the recent lockdowns, or mobility and interaction restrictions due to the COVID crisis, may further reinforce the use of digital technologies as a tool for work, communication or entertainment (Berthomier & Octobre, 2020). It can force or encourage new uses. This kind of constraint can also lead to new uses in terms of work and sociability (Cihuelo & Piotrowski, 2021; Mariot, Mercklé, & Perdoncin, 2021). At the interface of these different domains, the question of digital skills and learning of the ageing population also represents an important issue, and reveals to be closely linked to previous technical socialization (Delias, 2019).

2. Autonomy, digital technologies and the impact of social determinants

9The notion of autonomy is found in most of the analyses in this dossier, from a perspective that is not that of the sociology of professions or of artistic and cultural production (Sapiro, 2019), which focuses on the question of the production of collectives or social spaces with their own proper logics. Autonomy as presented is also distinct from the philosophical and political project that makes it the goal of an ideal education (Castoriadis, 2006) or the preferred orientation in pedagogical practices (Freire, 2013): it appears more as a skill to achieve, an individual state to stabilize. This state of autonomy results from the absence of external guidance, direction or supervision that is usually induced by the layman’s status, this absence being linked to the progressive construction of an independence in the activity as well as in the learning processes linked to this activity. Thus, the conception of autonomy developed in the articles in this issue is close to the way in which some of the educational sciences work on this notion, for example in the context of constructivist approaches to learning processes centered on the involvement, empowerment and actions of the learner (Barbot & Trémion, 2016). While work in sociology has already shown how this autonomy is highly dependent upon social variation in an educational context (Gasparini, Joly-Rissoan, & Dalud-Vincent, 2009), its development is mainly pursued through pedagogical innovation, particularly through digital technologies.

2.1. Social profiles and technical biographies

10The articles presented in this thematic issue first allow us to reflect on the way the presence as well as the absence of “autonomy” in certain populations with respect to digital technologies and their learning is naturalized. Not only do we find in the social dynamics of learning in a digital context the social determinants that exist elsewhere, but the contributions to this issue also show that the mediation of digital technologies, through the attribution of skills linked to social representations, can reinforce the effect of these determinants. The presumed ability of people to interact with digital technologies, as well as the areas of competence and use they are invited to expand, are not indifferent to the fact that these people are young or old, male or female, from more or less culturally privileged environments. The work presented here also highlights the political dimension of certain learning devices linked to digital technology which, either by ignoring or by incorporating these representations, meet more or less positively the dispositions of the people who use them.

11The social stratification of digital practices, which induces at the same time issues related to inequalities of access, use and autonomy with respect to digital technologies has been identified at an early stage (Hargittai & Hsieh, 2013; Mercklé & Octobre, 2012). However, there is little research documenting and analyzing in a precise and empirical way the way in which the acquisition of digital skills, autonomy and competences is articulated and confronted not only with profiles and singular technical biographies, but also with the social expectations associated with age and gender categories. The first two contributions to the issue both offers an original and complementary reading of this topic by examining a case in which skills and autonomy towards digital technologies are prejudged to be weak (in the first case) and strong (in the second one).

12Gabrielle Lavenir offers an analysis based on a qualitative survey of interviews and observations with individuals aged sixty and over. Based on a rich and original fieldwork, she unfolds the issues that affect in particular digital technologies uses of this category of age. She identifies three major points of tension in having to cope first with an already long biography of technology use that is largely ignored by initiatives that seek to encourage such practice, second with the evolution of physical skills, and third with the weakness of the sociability associated with this practice, which limits the resources for learning. With a special focus on the workshops organized in nursing homes (EHPAD), the paper underlines the difficulty of matching the representations that surround and structure the digital uses of seniors with their actual practices and with their “technobiographies” (Buse, 2010). Coupled with a rather utilitarian conception of video games as a instrument for “ageing well”, these representations participate in the elaboration of injunctions to play that are very often blind to the usage pathways of the people they are aimed at.

13In his article, Antoine Larribeau is interested in the social roots of the development of a taste (in the variety of its expressions) for computers in a young and male population. He thus contributes to moving beyond the homogenizing character sometimes associated with the notion of “self-taught”. Indeed, this notion is willingly applied, including by those concerned, to the acquisition of computer skills, as a practical activity in which ad hoc problem solving plays an important role (Alcaras & Larribeau, 2022; Jaton, 2022). The originality of the article proposed here is to return to the way in which this notion makes the plurality of social mechanisms that support this type of learning invisible, to the extent of naturalizing the learning process. By questioning young men about their socialization to the practice of computer science and their relationship to school, the author manages to highlight the different contexts and social anchors of the practices that in fact cover this kind of learning by doing.

2.2. Which dispositions to learn in order to be digital entrepreneurs?

14The question of the articulation between technical or informational apparatus (dispositif) and learning dispositions also runs through all the contributions in the issue. Several of them specifically uncover the implicit expectations that underlie the frequent association between entrepreneurship, digital tools and skills. Despite what we know about the inequalities linked to access, but also to the uses of digital technology (Hargittai, 2021), the latter is very often presented as the preferred path to a “second chance” for people from underprivileged backgrounds or in the context of professional bifurcations towards entrepreneurship. Two articles particularly address the gap between the theoretical characteristics of populations that are officially designated as targets and the importance that digital platforms and devices attribute in practice to implicit and previously acquired skills in order to evolve and learn successfully.

15Anne Jourdain’s contribution looks at how the issues raised by the problem of learning intersect with those of new forms of entrepreneurship introduced by the intermediation of platforms and socionumeric networks. Her analysis is based on a mixed-methodology survey (autoethnography, interviews, questionnaires) of female users of the online sales platform Etsy, which specializes in handcrafted products and is mainly used by women. The sociologist is in line with recent work on platform work, which has highlighted the platform’s lack of neutrality (Abdelnour & Méda, 2019; Flichy, 2019). She raises here an original question: that of the specific skills required for the digital activities demanded by work via these platforms, and the conditions of their learning. The richness and variety of her survey material allows her to demonstrate that the most successful people do not exactly fit the representations conveyed by Etsy (home production, side jobs). Such users enjoy merchant play, and rely more on acquired skills in this area than in manufacturing the items that they are selling online.

  • 2 Public interest group set up by the French government in 2015, GEN labels and publicizes a set of t (...)

16Fabien Labarthe’s text returns to the learning of computer science, understood in a stricter sense. It sheds light on computer training courses that use so-called “innovative” pedagogy, in the institutional context of the Grande École du Numérique2, which has an inclusion-oriented mission. Drawing on a rich set of observations and interviews, Fabien Labarthe is less interested in analyzing the discourse produced in this institutional context than in how it is put into practice, which the article helps to document in a precise manner. Innovative pedagogy gives rise to different forms of reception depending on the characteristics of the audiences observed, and do not ultimately proves to be perfectly successful. On the basis of the identification of social and educational competencies, related to the exploratory regime of discovery and self-training of computer virtuosos, as defined by Nicolas Auray (Auray, 2016), his investigation shows that, in contradiction with the initial proposal of the training system, it is precisely the less academically endowed groups that have the most difficulty with pedagogical forms that emphasize autonomy.

3. Do digital technologies accompany the transformation of our relationship to learning towards greater autonomy?

17The second part of the thematic issue is composed of four texts that focus on contemporary transformations of the frameworks and modalities of learning and the way they are mediated, accompanied or influenced, by the digital. Thus, these papers invite us to explore, through the study of digital technologies, the more general function of learning in our time.

18This set of articles documents in detail distinct temporal, social, and spatial contexts of learning mediated by digital technologies. By taking into account the effects of this mediation, they actualize two sets of analytical tools emerging from critical research in the early 1990s: on the one hand, that of situated learning theories and the concept of community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and on the other hand, of analyses in the sociology of education that have popularized and worked on the concept of scholastic form (Vincent, 1994; Vincent, Courtebras, & Reuter, 2012).

3.1. Communities of practice and digital technologies: participation and autonomization

19Online spaces have been analyzed as informal learning environments, as well as environments for non-formalized learning (Berry, 2007). Referring to the socialized dimension of digital practices, the concept of community has been particularly successful in designating online collectives whether as an indigenous or academic use. In this respect, the latter have notably drawn on the concept of the “community of practice” which was developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the context of their work on situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This notion became a major reference to the field of research that developed around Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. This research often moves away from the critical dimension that runs through Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s first analyses. The authors were initially interested in the political and capitalist dimension of the decontextualization of knowledge and of its transmission, as well as in the distancing caused by the methods of scholastic transmission between the learners and the social contexts in which learning actually applied. This reflexion about an “alienated” type of learning, because of its artificial detachment from the contexts of its practice, faded fairly in Etienne Wenger’s development of the concept of communities of practice (Wenger, 2008), but persisted in the work of Jean Lave (Lave, 2019). More generally, education sciences are for long concerned by the situated nature of learning and the extent to which it is likely to be transposed and valued in other spaces (Brougère, 2007; Chevallier, 1996; Delbos & Jorion, 1990).

20The articles on this thematic issue invite us to re-discuss these theories considering the way digital technology facilitates the sharing and exchange of content, and creates contexts that are favorable to the acquisition and production of knowledge. They thus reinforce the idea that learning processes mediated by digital technology generate new expressions of the logic of social participation that were highlighted by the theory of situated learning and by the concept of communities of practice. The field of leisure and spare time activities, which is the focus of two of the articles in the dossier, is a privileged space to observe these dynamics. These two contributions highlight the fact that digital technology allows, just as much as participation, the distancing from the group and the development of an individual learning path. In her study, Noémie Roques underlines, for example, how learning to play the video game Fortnite by watching YouTube videos allows young boys to gain autonomy in their practice while partially escaping the harsh judgment of their peers. Emmanuelle Guittet and Vinciane Zabban studied needleworkers who are also freed by digital resources from some social costs induced by the learning process.

21Noémie Roques’ article is fully in line with this body of work, proposing a micrological analysis based on a fine ethnography of the uses of online videos by young boys who play the video game Fortnite. She shows how these boys use it in various ways and at different levels of their practices. They sometimes mobilize the game in a prefigurative way, as a space of unconstrained learning and without cost or risk of exposure. Sometimes, the game serves as a support for the construction of a shared repertoire, as a conversational object or as a time of compensation, when access to the game itself is constrained or forbidden. The author also emphasizes here the way in which the videos thus provide the boys with a form of autonomy vis-à-vis the peer group.

22The article by Emmanuelle Guittet and Vinciane Zabban takes us to a practice whose social composition is quite different in terms of gender and age. Based on an interview-based research with users of a digital platform dedicated to knitting, the two authors highlight the centrality of learning in the practice. The study of the social uses of this learning reveals that it is not only a means, but also an incentive for the practice. Following the path taken by previous work carried out on creative leisure networks (Le Deuff, 2011), they focus on the way digital tools and apparatus create new configurations for social participation and the development of collective learning. The observation is both similar and different from the one made in the previous paper: the material arrangements specific to digital technology do indeed constitute a form of empowerment (less dependence on family or market resources, lowering of the economic and social cost of entering the practice), but they also contribute to socializing an activity that is initially rather solitary.

3.2. School, health crisis and digital technology: a test for the scholastic form?

23The last two articles in the dossier empirically document the effects of confinement on one of the most institutionalized contemporary learning environments: the school, by addressing the policy of “educational continuity” in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic. Their authors present empirical material that reveals the particular (re)arrangements of spaces and temporalities operated by parents, siblings, and students. Digital equipment is a central element of family material ecology, and is the main tool through which homeschooling took place. Researchers who have invested and investigated this sudden rupture agree on how it has involved a reinterpretation of the classical model of the school form. The school shape, as defined by Guy Vincent (Vincent, 1980), historically marks the emergence of a new social form, the pedagogical relationship, by autonomizing the teacher-pupil relationship and isolating knowledge from action. To this school shape are associated specific mediations (writing), a temporality and a separate space. In this context, the school is the place where forms of exercising power are learned (Vincent, 1994). As Luc Ria and Patrick Rayou explain (Ria & Rayou, 2020), confinement and home schooling should, in theory, put the school form to the test in that they disrupt its spatiotemporal framework in particular. Instead, and this is the interest of the recourse to the notion of shape, one observes the displacement of the center of gravity of teaching. It results, on the one hand, from a punctual adjustment, and, on the other hand, from a more durable evolution of the modalities of this singular social shape. The texts presented here provide original material and analyses to fuel this reflexion, in particular on the question of the role and effects of digital technologies in the punctual and longer-term transformations.

24Melina Solari Landa, Laëtitia Pierrot, Christine Michel, Jean-François Cerisier and Carine Aillerie propose an article based on a detailed analysis of data concerning thirty students of different levels, collected through interviews with adults and children. The authors carry out a categorical analysis that brings to light different types of arrangements for the cohabitation of personal and school digital uses, during periods of total and partial confinement. Making space for the voices of families allows them to question the transformations of parental mediation and the relationship to digital technologies as learning technologies. This analysis leads them to conclude that during periods of confinement, families appropriated and adjusted certain modalities of the school shape to make it cohabit with the family and domestic setting. These adjustments are part of a sudden acceleration of deeper, long-term trends.

25Finally, the article by Laurent Tessier and Virginie Tremion closes the thematic issue by going back to the notion of autonomy. It presents a survey based on a rich corpus of 32 interviews that essentially gives voice to senior students, about the way learning was organized during the period of lockdown. In particular, it underlines and analyzes the way in which this event revealed the difficulty of the students to set up a way of working autonomously, which has been valued and widely adopted in school-related policies for a long time. He suggests that the pandemic episode contributed more to the acquisition of a “remote-worker ethos” by students than to the development of new digital skills. Thus, far from contradicting the description of education as the implementation of disciplinary techniques, empowerment as described here would reflect further internalization of discipline vis-à-vis learning practices.

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Notes

1 We would like to thank the contributors to this thematic issue, either for their text proposals or for their evaluations and proofreading. In particular, we would like to express our thankful appreciation to the members of the editorial board of the journal RESET for their valuable contributions to the scientific and editorial quality of this special issue and of this introduction.

2 Public interest group set up by the French government in 2015, GEN labels and publicizes a set of training courses in digital professions, based on innovative teaching methods and aimed primarily at people who are far from employment.

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Cédric Fluckiger et Vinciane Zabban, « Digital Technologies and Learning »RESET [En ligne], 12 | 2023, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2023, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/reset/4774 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/reset.4774

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Auteurs

Cédric Fluckiger

Université de Lille, CIREL

Vinciane Zabban

Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, EXPERICE

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